I have a friend who says she ranks Lord Byron above all the English Romantic poets--even above Keats. I can't agree, even though reading through this I understand why she would. She thinks Keats sometimes overwrought. I don't agree really. What can I say, he sings to me. The only poem of Keats I don't like is Edymion, his one epic poem, and one even Keats admitted was problematic. Even that has lines to relish: "A thing of beauty is a joy forever."
Not that there aren't some gorgeous verse of Byron that can rank with the best of Keats--Byron's most famous poem arguably is "She Walks in Beauty"--notably it's short. As are almost all the other poems of his I'd count as favorites: "Darkness," "Prometheus," "Ode to Napoleon Bonaparte," "We'll Go No More a-Roving." "By the Rivers of Babylon We Sat Down and Wept," "I Would I Were a Careless Child." Byron is a more varied poet than Keats; Byron wrote in an astonishing variety of forms and lengths--I have to give him snaps for that. But maybe because of that experimental quality, unlike with Keats, I found a lot more misses than hits with Byron. To me Byron too often wore out his welcome at longer lengths. There was an exception though, and one that goes to the heart of his appeal--to me and to my friend. That poem was his epic Don Juan. It was funny, snarky, catty, witty, and like Dante, Byron is not afraid to take things to a personal level with personalities he knew--have a stanza:
He, Juan (and not Wordsworth), so pursued
His self-communion with his own high soul,
Until his mighty heart, in its great mood,
Had mitigated part, though not the whole
Of its disease; he did the best he could
With things not very subject to control,
And turn'd, without perceiving his condition,
Like Coleridge, into a metaphysician.
My friend thinks Keats all too earnest. And I admit there's something charming and refreshing in a Romantic poet that doesn't take things too seriously, who has a sense of humor. On the other hand, Don Juan, his comic masterpiece, remained uncompleted at his death. And I can't say I can put it up there quite with the epic poems I've loved, the works of Homer, Vergil, Dante--even Milton for all his flaws. I do recommend giving Byron a try. His poems deserve to be better known, and he deserves to be better known than the poet of just "She Walks in Beauty" and the man known as "mad, bad and dangerous to know."